Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Cosa Nostra – rebranding the Mafia.

An interview with Professor John Dickie
Andrew Lawless

Unfairly asking you to gaze into the future rather than the past, in a hundred years from now how likely is it that Falcone, Buscetta and the maxi trials will be another footnote in mafia history?


I sincerely hope not. One of the lessons of the history of the mafia is that it has come very close to defeat on a number of occasions. There is nothing inevitable about the existence of Cosa Nostra. If the political will can be found–and that’s a huge ‘if’ in Italy–then the mafia can be defeated.


The mafia is often portrayed as a State within a State. With its involvement in arms and drugs trafficking, how has the post 9/11 war on terrorism affected the organisation? Aside from possible connections through drug trafficking and money laundering to radical Islamic groups, the mafia has proven itself in the past to be a terrorist organisation (if we define that as the targetting of civilians for political purposes). How does it fit in the post 9/11 world?


I’m not sure we can really regard 9/11 as a watershed in the history of the mafia in the way that your question implies. I don’t think the rise of Islamist terrorism means very much to Cosa Nostra, except in the sense that it has probably diverted some police manpower in the US and Italy away from organized crime. The biggest turning points in the recent history of the Sicilian mafia were the verdict of the Court of Cassation in 1992 that finally proved the existence of Cosa Nostra, and the murders of judges Falcone and Borsellino a few months afterwards. Another turning point was the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the old political system in Italy: the mafia could no longer dress itself up as a bulwark against Communism. (Which was the justification for some acts of mafia terrorism in the past.)


One group who are absent from your history, for the most part, are women. Do women play any role in the organisation, other than passive?


There are women in my book: in the chapters on the Sangiorgi Report, for example, or on Peppino Impastato. But to answer your question, yes they certainly do. Women are not allowed to be initiated into Cosa Nostra, but their cooperation is fundamental to the organization’s survival. That’s why Cosa Nostra has so many rules about women’s behaviour, and about men’s behaviour towards women. Almost inevitably, women learn some of the secrets of their criminal menfolk: a mafia wife is the one who has to wash the blood and excrement off her husband’s clothes when he’s been strangling a victim. So Cosa Nostra cannot afford to alienate its women in case they betray those secrets. Women bring their children up to admire and emulate mafia fathers who spend a great deal of time away–in jail for example. They lend their names to mafia front businesses. In countless ways they oil the machinery of mafia power.

Occasionally mafia women have also come to exercise power themselves. We cannot be sure whether this is an entirely new historical phenomenon. But any woman who does take an active part in criminal policy-making always does so on borrowed authority–she rules on behalf of an imprisoned husband, for example. A very recent case is that of Giusy Vitale, the sister of the boss of Partinico; she was acting boss of a Family until she turned state’s evidence. But even today, these cases are quite rare–and rarer in Sicily than in the other criminal associations in Italy. Every boss of Cosa Nostra has, or should have, a (male) deputy ready to step into his shoes if he gets killed or imprisoned. Cosa Nostra exists as an organization precisely in order to guarantee continuity in leadership.


The mafia continues to exist partly due to complicity on the part of various important social partners. What role has the Church had in the struggle against the mafia? Would it be fair to say that, at an institutional level rather than on the part of individual priests, the Church has been far from strident in its criticisms of the mafia?


That’s a pretty good summary–although rather generous to the Church! The fact that it took until 1993 for the Pope to come out and declare the mafia an evil speaks for itself. During the Cold War, the Vatican was far more concerned about Communism in Sicily than it was about the mafia. At the local level, there has been a great deal of complicity between individual churchmen and the mafia–as well as some extraordinary instances of heroic resistance.

Many mafiosi also profess a version of the Catholic faith. It helps them live with themselves. As one mafia defector has recently said:

We mafiosi are believers because […] we are made of flesh and blood like everyone else. Of course, the first few times it is bad to see those people dying while we…, well…, we act as executioners. But afterwards it becomes normal.

Religion – or what passes for it – is also the cultural glue that keeps Cosa Nostra compact. It is not just that the dynastic politics of Cosa Nostra‘s leading kinship networks are played out at religious rites of passage like Christenings, weddings and funerals. Becoming a mafioso means taking on a new identity, and a strange form of religious morality is often integral to that identity. ‘I kill you before God’, as one man of honour announced to a petty crook he executed in public a few years ago.


There is a political stereotype of the mafia, particularly after episodes like the Portella della Ginestra massacre [1947 massacre of eleven people at a mayday gathering, by Salvatore Giuliano, reputedly a mafioso], that it has been aligned with the centre-right (most obviously with the DC). To what extent have the Italian left managed to avoid political contact with the mafia?


The best way of avoiding political contact with the mafia is by staying out of power–which is where the Left has been in Sicily for most of its history. The mafia also has a legacy of suspicion towards the Right, which originates in Fascism’s war on the mafia in the late 1920s. Cosa Nostra is very political, but it is not ideological. Its natural political home is the amorphous, amoral centre ground of Italian public life. That’s where politicians are most likely to stay in power, and where the mafia can best strike the exchange deals it relies on to get access to public works contracts and the like.

John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra, a history of the Sicilian Mafia is published in the UK by Coronet

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